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Profile: Joan Fitz-Gerald

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Joan Fitz-Gerald was a participant or observer in the following events:

A group of Democratic donors, shaken from the defeat the party suffered in the November midterm elections, meets in a Washington hotel to discuss how to counter the huge influx of corporate spending that helped defeat dozens of Democrats and give control of the US House of Representatives back to Republicans. Outside conservative groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce, the American Action Network (see Mid-October 2010), and American Crossroads/Crossroads GPS outspent Democratic groups by more than a two to one ratio. The donors are split on whether to try to emulate their opponents by raising as much money as possible from wealthy corporations and donors, or continuing down their traditional path of funding their campaign efforts via labor unions and organizations such as the Sierra Club. If they decide to pursue corporate cash, some argue, they will be viewed as hypocrites in light of Democrats’ almost-uniform opposition to the 2010 Citizens United decision, which “opened the floodgates” for unlimited corporate and labor donations (see January 21, 2010). One of the fundamental problems, Democrats note, is that while unions are allowed to contribute unlimited funds just as corporations do, unions, which traditionally support Democrats, are far less wealthy than their corporate counterparts. And despite record-breaking fundraising by the Obama presidential campaign in 2008, most corporations donate to Republicans. The donors are not expected to come up with simple answers as they begin to strategize for 2012, where Republicans are expected to raise and spend an unprecedented half-billion dollars trying to defeat President Obama. Moreover, the White House has sent decidedly mixed messages on the subject. During the 2008 race, the Obama campaign instructed an independent progressive “527” PAC, the Fund for America, to shut down its operations after it began releasing attack ads against Obama’s opponent, Senator John McCain (R-AZ). The Obama campaign did not want independent organizations conducting their own operations, but wanted full control of the campaign message. And campaign leaders said they wanted to win with small individual contributions from ordinary citizens, not with massive corporate donations. The White House’s opposition to such outside funding continued through 2010, and as a result, corporate donations to Democratic-supporting groups were far outstripped by Republican donations. Since then, Obama’s top political advisor David Axelrod has indicated the White House would support liberal donors’ independent efforts to counter Republican political donations, but many Democratic donors still believe the Obama administration is not fully behind those efforts. A Democratic strategist who refuses to be identified says: “By and large, the political people in the Obama firmament really have disdain for outside groups. They think they whine and snivel and make all these demands and don’t produce very much.” Some liberal donors and organizations are ignoring the resistance from the White House and making their own plans, such as David Brock, the founder of Media Matters for America (MMFA), who is considering forming his own 527 (see 2000 - 2005) for 2012. Another Democratic activist, Joan Fitz-Gerald of the umbrella group America Votes, says Democrats cannot depend on the courts or Congress to rein in corporate spending, noting that Congressional Democrats failed to get the DISCLOSE Act, a campaign finance reform measure, to the floor of the Senate for a vote (see July 26-27, 2010). Fitz-Gerald says Democrats must adapt to the new political landscape or risk another trouncing in 2012. However, she recommends working through existing progressive organizations more than using hastily formed PACs and 527s funded by one or two wealthy sources. Unions and environmental groups have large, citizen-based funding sources, whereas Republican organizations are often funded by a small group of wealthy donors who bankroll numerous such organizations. Those organizations, she says, lack credibility with voters. The traditional grassroots-based organizations, she says, “are trusted messengers, whether they’re a union that someone belongs to or a group that people have been a member of for many years. At some point the American people, as they see these ads pushing this right-wing agenda, they’re going to ask: ‘Who are these people? What’s the goal of American Crossroads?’” But the funding garnered by the right made the difference in the 2010 elections, Democratic donors agree. Mike Palamuso of the League of Conservation Voters recalls, “For every $500,000 we spent, it felt like American Crossroads spent another $5 million.” Many agree with Democratic political strategist Harold Ickes, who says: “Is small money better? You bet. But we’re in a f_cking fight. And if you’re in a fistfight, then you’re in a fistfight, and you use all legal means available.” [Mother Jones, 11/15/2010]

Entity Tags: David Brock, American Action Network, America Votes, American Crossroads, David Axelrod, US House of Representatives, Sierra Club, Harold Ickes, Joan Fitz-Gerald, US Chamber of Commerce, American Crossroads GPS, Mike Palamuso, Obama administration

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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